Labour needs to win the aid debate – here’s how

A future Labour government needs to be trusted with the public purse if it is going to survive more than a single term. Winning back trust will involve redefining how we spend money – so let’s start with aid.


The sometimes hysterical debate about aid (best personified in Godfrey Bloom’s ‘bongo-bongo land’ remark) should focus on poverty and injustice yet be committed to a pragmatic approach. Aid is in danger of replicating the UK debate on welfare reform; focussing on wildly abnormal examples to justify exceptional policy changes.

To stop “government by caricature” we must engage with some of these examples whilst accepting they are unrepresentative. We should look at how aid is being misspent and how to address. Yet we should also promote its use to prevent conflict, develop economies and spread human rights.

“Prevention is better than cure” has been the guiding principle of modern medicine. This simple idea has for some, become a philosophy of how to live better – we deal with problems before they develop and plan cautiously for an uncertain future.

The UK government has now been adopting this approach to foreign policy under the term “peacebuilding”, dealing with the root causes of conflict rather than treating the symptoms with military force. This has been very successful since in 2000 Labour created the UK Conflict Pool – a UK government fund designed to sponsor country and region-specific conflict prevention programmes.

This more nuanced approach to combating extremism and instability has been successful in almost every theatre in which it has been piloted. Successes across Labour and coalition governments have included cutting down the proliferation of small arms in Yemen and ensuring more peaceful dialogue between the military and government in Pakistan. The remit of the Conflict Pool is inspiring non-violent solutions to conflict – but what happens when this sort of aid is militarized?

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a country badly in need of Western help – in the Second Congo War between 1998-2003 over 5 million Africans died in a conflict that encompassed 20 African states. To this day the East of Congo is plagued by militancy resulting in racketeering, mass rape and the desecration of corpses.

Among these groups are the DRC government armed forces. Not a group you would expect to be benefiting from UK government aid.

However, the Conflict Pool has sponsored the refurbishment of 8 military bases through a contribution to the European Union Advisory and Assistance Mission (EUSEC), which also organised the payroll of DRC soldiers.

The money that was provided to facilitate the refurbishment of these military bases this was never monitored. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) stated in a 2012 report that Conflict Pool money is: “regularly transferred to the garrison level, it is not known if the money actually reaches soldiers”.

You might well be asking how refurbishing 8 military bases deals with the root causes of conflict in the DRC – luckily we don’t have to as the ICAI give a pretty clear appraisal: “It has had no impact on the protection of civilians”.

So not only is non-military aid militarised through EUSEC, it is poorly monitored and goes towards the salaries of armed forces personnel who have committed human rights abuses. What’s more, the UK government seems to have been aware of this for nearly two years and has taken no discernible action. Ed Miliband should be shouting about this from the dispatch box.

Aid saves lives and can be crucial in developing a post-conflict economy. But to work properly aid must have impact, a plan, and, perhaps most importantly, it mustn’t make the problems it is trying to solve worse.

Even the ill-thought-out military refurbishment lacked any long-term planning, another report stated that the aid package ” did not make any provision for maintenance and thus the improved facilities quickly fell into disrepair.

If we can’t even do a bad idea properly – how could anyone support aid going to countries on the Africa continent?

The creeping militarisation of aid has clearly reached breaking point when it results in the direct funding of armed forces guilty of widespread human rights abuses. This is especially confusing when the official OECD definition of Overseas Development Aid (ODA) excludes most military activity entirely. The Conflict Pool gets around this by being a complex mix of different types of aid – meaning in practice it can easily be militarised by organisations like EUSEC.

Peacebuilding works,  so much so that the UK government is tripling the resources dedicated to it over the next three years. Investing in a more peaceful world is something that appeals to the idealist in all of us. I hope a future Labour government will honour this commitment.

The problems affecting the Conflict Pool are numerous – a continued lack of transparency, funding and strategic direction has dogged the initiative since its inception. Recommendations laid out by the ICAI for improving the Conflict Pool have never been reported back on.

So if we are going to be idealists then we should at least be competent ones. Let’s de-militarise aid so that the money doesn’t go towards indirectly subsidising colonels who allegedly ordered sexual violence against women.

A future Labour government should demilitarize aid and embark on far reaching reform of the Conflict Pool and its successor the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. This would signal that Labour is committed to fiscal responsibility whilst engaged in the wider world.

With reform, the Conflict Pool could become the centrepiece of British foreign policy – ensuring that the principle of “prevention is better than war” becomes the cornerstone of international development for generations to come.

It would be an approach inspired by a peaceful idealism and grounded in a business-like pragmatism – both of which have their natural home in the Labour Party.

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